REVIEW: The 101 Dalmatians (Broadway in Chicago)

Children’s classic turned stage tragedy

 James Ludwig & The Company

Broadway in Chicago presents:

The 101 Dalmatians Musical

Based on “101 Dalmatioas” by Dodie Smith
Book adapted by BT McNicholl
Music by Dennis DeYoung
Lyrics by DeYoung and McNicholl
Directed by Jerry Zaks

Through February 28th (more info, tickets)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Lest you confuse it with the classic Disney animated movie “101 Dalmatians,” the marquee in front of the Cadillac Palace proclaims that The 101 Dalmatians Musical  is within. Although to be sure, 1961’s more simply titled version also had music.  But that nearly 50-year-old gem is to the new Broadway in Chicago touring production what a real dog is to a pet rock. There is more suspense, heart and humor in the opening credits of 101 Dalmatians the movie than there is in the whole of The 101 Dalmatians the musical. 

Kristen Beth Williams - ect To be fair, my 8-year-old consultant on the project liked the stage show. But he wasn’t thrilled, as he was with Lookingglass Alice at Lookingglass, swept wholly away as he was with the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol or completely delighted as he was with Mary Poppins. Kids are smart – they can intuit when something’s being dumbed down for their supposed benefit. And make no mistake: Novelist Dodie Smith’s tale of noble canines and evil dognappers has been dumbed down horrendously. The original (both book and movie) were clever, cute and genuinely heart-warming. The touring show is shrill, condescending and precious. It is also a crass, obvious and cheaply produced attempt to make money. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with shows whose raison d’être is to make money. But when the fiscal concerns are more apparent than the artistic concerns, you’ve got a dog that don’t hunt. 

The cheapness of The101 Dalmatians Musical is apparent in both the cast and the production values. Led by a screechy Sara Gettelfinger as fur fetishist Cruella (replacing the originally announced Rachel York in the role), the ensemble performs at the level one might expect from a middle school variety show. It’s an Equity show, but you’d never guess that based on Warren Carlyle’s charmless choreography, Dennis DeYoung’s forgettable score and the mugging acting style favored by director Jerry Zaks.

The brief moments when the canine caper transcends the abrasive mediocrity that dominates the production arrive with the real Dalmatians. There’s a tease at the end of the first act, as the pooches pose in a tableau that sends the audience out to intermission on a high note. The dogs also get the spotlight (no pun intended) in an epilogue of clever animal tricks. Opening night, however, that final scene only highlighted the sloppiness of the humans involved with the show. This happened when a Dalmatian bounded out, got up on her hind legs and seemed to unfurl a window awning by turning a wheel of some sort. The illusion would have been pleasantly diverting if the person actually manipulating the window treatment had stayed out of sight. She didn’t, cruelly stealing the dog’s sunshine.

Catia Ojeda, Jeff Scott Carey & James Ludwig Madeleine Doherty, Mike Masters, Kristen Beth Williams, Erin Maguire & James Ludwig
The Company 3 The Company

As for the rest of the two-legged ensemble, director Zaks has the cast collectively subscribing to the louder-is-better school of acting. Every character is underwritten and broadly (over)played. Book writer BT McNicholl seems oblivious to the fact that character counts and simplicity doesn’t mean stupid, not even in the most fundamental children’s picture books. (Look at Where the Wild Things Are – a scant paragraph of prose, and a world entirely of unforgettable characters)  McNicoll reduces Smith’s story to a parade of flashy costumes and obvious punchlines.  Curiously, he doesn’t skimp on the sado-masochistic elements of the tale. One expects some frank talk about skinning puppies and turning them into gloves. But what’s with stressing Cruella’s violent death and having her cackle with unbridled glee as she discovers that she loves the sensation of flames devouring her flesh? Joel Blum & Emma ZaksFor a kid’s show, that’s just weird. And unless your name is Lemony Snicket, not entirely appropriate.

As for the corps of children playing the puppies, they’re burdened both with that drearily dumb book and choreography that will provide audience members of a certain age a flashback to Zoom, that ‘70s show that captivated Junior High School Nation back in the day with its Up-With-People-Lite dance routines and cereal box brand of relentless perkiness. The Dalmatian Musical kids are capable, but at Broadway in Chicago prices, one expects an ensemble that transcends your basic middle school aesthetic.

On the plus side, The 101 Dalmatians Musical does have a clever design concept. The actors playing humans are all on stilts, which provides the audience with a dogs’-eye-perspective on matters. Robert Morgan’s costumes and Heidi Ettinger’s oversize sets are original. And distracting. After the initial laugh was over, we found we spent an inordinate amount of time pondering where the actors’ real legs ended and where their stilt legs began. Also, how those gigantic shoes worked. Moreover, choreographer Carlyle can only do so much with performers on stilts, so the dancing never gets much more elaborate than a JV squad pom-pom routine.

Finally, there’s the puppies not played by kids. As newborns, the Dalmatians look like dead mops. Which, as descriptions go, might not make sense to those who haven’t seen The 101 Dalmatians Musical. But look like dead mops they do. And it is oh so very difficult to invest in a story that begins with the premise that one should care about a basket of fugly cleaning equipment.  


The 101 Dalmatians Musical continues through Feb. 28 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 154 W. Randolph. Tickets are $18 $85, more if you want the Broadway in Chicago Concierge experience. For more information click here or go to or or by calling 800/775-2000.   

James Ludwig & The Company 2

View (2010-02) The 101 Dalmations Musical

Bailiwick announces change in management – Kevin Mayes takes on David Zak’s position of Executive Director

KevinMayes Bailiwick Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director, David Zak, and its Board President, Don Cortelyou, have announced that Artistic Associate Kevin Mayes has assumed management of the company as Executive Director. Mayes will be leading a group of dedicated Bailiwick artists to reorganize the company and reenergize its artistic mission. David Zak will continue to be involved in the company, and will transition into the role of Artistic Director Emeritus.

“We are excited that Kevin has agreed take on this challenge,” said Board President Don Cortelyou, “and look forward to supporting him, along with a core team of Artistic Associates, as they work together to continue Bailiwick’s remarkable 27-year legacy.”

Says David Zak:

Running the Bailiwick has been an incredible life experience, and I’m so proud of the work we’ve done, especially the world premieres we’ve produced with artists like Larry Kramer, Dennis DeYoung, and Claudia Allen, among many, many others. But I look forward to handing the reigns over to Kevin. He has worked closely with me over the past five years, and he cares deeply about the mission of the Bailiwick. I know that he, along with the other extremely talented and motivated Artistic Associates who have stepped up to the plate, will do great things together. I look forward to working with them as a close advisor and director of future productions.

Kevin Mayes has been an active member of the Chicago theater scene for the last decade. He has twice been nominated for Best Actor in a Musical by the Jeff Committee (My Favorite Year and A Man of No Importance), and has worked as a Director and Musical Director in both Chicago and New York. He worked closely with Lloyd Richards at the O’Neill Theater’s National Playwrights Conference, and with Wendy Wasserstein on the original production of The Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center. He has his degree in Theater and Music from Yale University, and has more than 15 years executive management experience working with large corporations as well as small start-ups.

Says Kevin Mayes:

We’ve had our challenges over the past few years, many related to the state of the economy, and others due to the dynamic nature of the Chicago theater market,” said Mayes.  “But I’m extremely excited by the opportunity to lead this organization forward. My initial focus will be on improving our operations and fiscal stability. Meanwhile, I hope that the artistic community and our faithful audiences will support us as we redefine – and recommit to – our artistic mission. I’m very excited to work with this passionate group of actors, directors, designers, and stage managers. I’m also extremely thankful to David for his vote of confidence, and look forward to his advice and counsel over the coming months in his new role.

Plans for the 2009-2010 season are currently under review, and will be announced at a later date.

For WGN Radio – My summer picks…

Chicago - My Kind of Theater Town - cropped

For Kids and Families:

  • Lyle, Lyle, the Crocodile, Lifeline Theatre
    • June 13th -July 13th; Friday-Sunday at 1pm
    • Tickets: $10
  • Cirque Shanghai: Gold ; Navy Pier outdoor theater
    • Runs all summer through Sept. 1st
    • Performed at outdoor theater at Navy Pier (just east of Ferris Wheel), so take in the show, then experience the huge fireworks display every Wednesday and Saturday evening.
    • Tickets: $12.50-$30
  • Willy Wonka, Chicago Shakespeare at Navy Pier
    • July 8th – August 17th
    • Tickets: $18-$23
  • Blue Man Group, Briar Street Theatre
    • Super-fun for kids of all ages
    • Tickets: $49-$59 (box office: 773-348-4000)

For Teens (and the young-at-heart):

  • Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, Neo-Futurists
    • Experience Chicago’s longest running play – 20 years and counting!
    • Days/Times: Friday-Saturday, 11pm, Sunday 7pm
    • Price: $6 plus the roll of a dice (so $7-$12 – is that cool or what?!?)
  • That’s Weird Grandma, Barrel of Monkeys
    • Monday nights, 8pm
    • Adults: $9 // Kids: $4

Broadway In Chicago (the big downtown shows):

  • Wicked, Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre)
    • After 4 super-successful years,Wicked, has announced that it will officially close in January 2009.  So catch it while you can!
    • Ticket Price: $30-$95 (Box Office: 312-902-1400)
  • Jersey Boys, Bank of America Theatre (formerly Schubert Theatre)
    • Open run
    • Ticket Price: $30-$95 (Box Office: 312-902-1400)
  • Shout!, Drury Lane Watertower
    • Through July 20th  
    • Tickets: $45-$55 (Box Office: 312-902-1400)

For Date Night:

My two-pennies worth:

You haven’t experienced Chicago until you’ve ventured north to The Heartland Cafe in East Rogers Park.  First opened in the 1970’s, this earthy restaurant and bar jettisons you back to the late 1960’s and early 70’s (in a granola and incense kind-of-way).  The musical review, Lonesome Losers of the Night, is performed in an intimate coffee house down the street from Heartland, so first grab a bite to eat at Heartland, walk down the block to the performance, then mosey back down to The Heartland for drinks and nightly live music.



  • Campaign Super Nova: or How Many Democrats Does It Take To Lose An Election?
    • Second City’s newest review
    • Open run, tickets: $19-$25 (Box Office: 312-337-3992)
  • Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Steppenwolf Theatre
    • runs through July 27
    • Tickets: $20-$68 (Box Office: 312-335-1650)
  • Co-Ed Prison Sluts, Annoyance Theatre
    • Annoyance Theatre brings back their raunchy long-running hit of the 80’s and 90’s.
    • Runs July 4th – August 29th
    • Tickets: $15 (Box Office: 773-561-4665)
  • Comedy Sportz – Comedy Sportz Theatre, Belmont and Clark
    • audience-interactive comedy competition between two teams of improv comedians, who perform a series of scenes and songs, all based on suggestions from the audience
    • Open run, now in their 21st year
    • Ticket prices vary, (Box Office: 773-549-8080)


  • A Steady Rain, Royal George Theatre
    • extended through Oct 5 (then on to Broadway?)
    • Tickets: $50 (box office: 312-988-9000)
  • Taste of Honey, Shattered Globe Theatre Ensemble
    • runs through July 5th
    • Tickets: $15-$35, (box office: 773-871-3000)
  • Hizzoner, Prop Thtr (performed at Beverly Arts Center)
    • Running for over 2-years, this play eerily depicts the infamous Mayor Richard J. Daley and inner-workings of “The Machine”
    • runs through July 29th
    • tickets: $40


  • Fiorello, Timeline Theatre 
    • runs through July 20th
    • Tickets: $15-$30 (Box Office: 773-281-8463)
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’, Goodman Theatre
    • running June 21st – July 27th
    • Tickets: not yet announced (Box Office: 312-443-3800)
  • Jekyll & Hyde, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble
    • through July 20th
    • Tickets: $20-$27 (Box Office: 773-327-5252)
  • Hunchback of Notre Dame, Bailiwick Repertory
    • composed by Dennis DeYoung of the band “Styx
    • runs through July 6t
    • Tickets: $25-$45 (Box Office: 773-883-1090)
  • Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace
    • runs through July 27th
    • tickets: $28-$33